Iceland have produced another eruption.
The smallest country to qualify for the European Championship marked their tournament debut with a result to savour against Portugal, although that and their memorable celebrations were not the only tremors felt in Saint-Étienne. Cristiano Ronaldo reacted to a restorative night for the game with all the petulance and pettiness of a spoilt child.
“Iceland didn’t try anything,” whined the Portuguese captain. “They were just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counterattack. It was a lucky night for them. We should have three points but we are OK. I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable. When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.” They have already accomplished more than expected and were at one with their fans after the final whistle while Ronaldo raged at the referee.
Even in a tiny nation’s finest hour in football, Ronaldo demands the limelight and so it is gratifying the prima donna was partly responsible for Iceland producing a performance to remember. His glaring miss five minutes from time, heading Nani’s cross straight at goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, not only prevented the Real Madrid man making history as the first player to score in four consecutive Euros but marked the moment the party started for Iceland. The roar that emanated from those in blue behind Halldorsson’s goal said it all. They knew. Iceland had arrived in style.
Portugal dominated but the glory belonged exclusively to the compact, belligerent and committed team of Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson. A truly stunning entry on to the international arena. Iceland started brightly and never faltered after Nani swept Fernando Santos’s team into a first-half lead. Birkir Bjarnason’s leveller ignited delirium among a vibrant Iceland following. Ten per cent of the country’s 330,000 population is expected in France and those here were in fine form. It helped that the team they had travelled to support showed they would not be overawed, intimidated or negative from the very start.
Their captain, Aron Gunnarsson, snapped legitimately into Ronaldo inside 10 seconds and Gylfi Sigurdsson almost gave the outsiders a stunning lead from their first attack. The Swansea City midfielder was released down the left, cut inside Danilo and stung Rui Patricio’s palms as Ricardo Carvalho closed in. Sigurdsson had a second bite from the rebound but Portugal’s keeper denied him again.
The pace of Portugal’s front two, Ronaldo and Nani, was an obvious threat to an Iceland defence that conceded only six goals in qualifying, three of those after their remarkable place in France was secured. Their authority was imposed gradually. Danilo had a header deflected wide, right-back Vieirinha forced Halldorsson to save at the second attempt with a left-footed drive and a poor defensive header by Birkir Saevarsson almost cost his side dearly. Ronaldo gathered possession on the left and delivered an inch-perfect cross on to the head of Nani, who seemed certain to score only for his effort to cannon clear off Halldorsson’s legs.
Iceland did not go into retreat but the danger from Portugal grew with every raid. Ronaldo sent a glancing header over and failed to connect with Pepe’s long ball over the head of Kari Arnason, the keeper clawing clear. He would have no such luck with the next attack. Pepe picked out André Gomes who flicked a lovely first-time pass out to Vieirinha on the right touchline and then crossed low into the goalmouth from the right-back’s return. There was Nani, arriving unmarked to steer a finish inside Halldorsson’s near post.
Iceland’s problem was not simply the growing menace from Ronaldo, revelling in space on his record-equalling 127th appearance for Portugal, but the struggle to retain possession for a meaningful period. The outsiders completed 66 passes in the first half compared to Portugal’s 277 yet brought parity to the only statistic that counts when they equalised shortly after the restart.
For Santos, a coach renowned for his defensive work, it was a shockingly complacent goal to concede. Iceland were deep in Portuguese territory on the right yet their players backed off and allowed Johann Gudmundsson to check back on to his left foot and cross to the back post. Bjarnason was completely unmarked when the ball sailed over Vieirinha and, with a side-foot volley beyond Patricio, wrote himself into the history books with Iceland’s first goal at a tournament. Stade Geoffroy Guichard was in disbelief. As were Portugal, who pushed relentlessly for the winner that never came thanks to Halldorsson, the relentless effort of those in front of him and Ronaldo’s late miss.
Hallgrimsson, the joint coach, said: “So many things are happening for the first time for Icelandic football. This was our first time on this stage and it was fantastic, it was just like playing at home because our fans were unbelievable and that made us feel better when we were tired towards the end. It is another milestone for Icelandic football.”
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